Over the years, the DC universe has undergone a series of crises — Crisis on Infinite Earths, Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, and Final Crisis. Out of these four, arguably the best written and most significant, and certainly my personal favorite, is Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales. It’s about the death of Sue Dibny, a minor character with no superpowers who is known primarily as the wife of Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man. Who, you might ask, is the Elongated Man? And why should you care about him or the death of his wife? And how on earth could I possibly make the claim that the story of her murder is one of the most significant events in the DC universe (a claim that is not uniquely my own — it’s shared by a large number of people)? And finally, why would I argue that it deserves a place on your bookshelf next to Alan Moore’s masterpiece — Watchmen?
The Elongated Man, Ralph Dibny, has the ability to stretch his entire body when he continues to drink Gingold Extract, but what really makes him worthy to be a hero is that he is an extremely intelligent detective, thus having basically the same skill-set as Batman. However, unlike Batman’s dark, brooding nature, Ralph’s disposition, because of his loving relationship with Sue, is a happier one. His is not a silly, unrealistic happiness: Unlike the humorous Plastic Man you might remember from Saturday morning cartoons, Ralph does not constantly crack jokes or become the butt of them. Ralph and Sue are simply a kind, loving couple. Their relationship may even represent the closest to normalcy any of their superhero friends could ever hope to achieve.
We can see why Sue, a character who may seem insignificant in the larger universe of DC, becomes a central character once she’s murdered: If the relatively unknown Sue is killed, who will be next? The reactions to her murder are dramatic and drastic as several other threats are made on those closest to other superheroes: All of a sudden the Superheroes, instead of rushing off to fight a cosmic battle or save people from problems caused by mass power outages, are finally concerned with the safety of the ones they love. They become their first priority. Sons reconnect with dads, and even separated spouses are drawn back together again.
The other Crisis events I mentioned at the beginning of my review may seem more exciting and more important than Identity Crisis because of the sheer magnitude of the cosmic-level plots and because readers are asked to deal with head-scratching questions — questions that could reasonably overwhelm a person new to comics: How many universes actually exist in the so-called singular, and therefore misleadingly named, DC universe? How many Earths? What are Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-S, and Earth-4 and what are all the differences between them and all the other Earths? It is fun to watch cosmic battles and grand, brave actions that have an impact on these multiple earths, but I believe Meltzer’s story has become significant for, among a number of reasons, its humanity — where the other Crisis books aim for big events, this one aims for the pedestrian, the mundane even. But that’s where we live, on a mundane, human level. It’s nice to see that what we wrestle with on a daily basis is just as difficult for superheroes as it is for us. They seem to find it easier to stop an earthquake or push a planet back into orbit than deal with their emotions, including fear, love, mourning, and, perhaps most importantly in Identity Crisis, mistrust.
Meltzer’s idea to focus on family and friends is genius because in a world of superhero- and alien-powers, he gives his characters a humanity to which readers can relate. In other words, we may not be able to imagine what it’s like to be Superman, but we can certainly understand what it might feel like to have the person we love most in the world in danger. Thus, we can understand Superman’s deep feelings of love and concern for Lois Lane. The darker potential of love is also something to which we can relate: We’ve seen marriages come to an end because of death or divorce, and in this book, we see both situations become relevant to plot and theme. We also understand the often difficult love between fathers and sons, and one of Meltzer’s greatest thematic-driven plots involves the simultaneously developing relationships between two farther-son pairs—one son is a costumed hero, and the father of the other set is a costumed villain. A reader might not even notice these parallels until they intersect in a dramatic way both in terms of plot and visual imagery, certainly one of the most visually memorable series of images in the comic.
Even if we accept that this is an excellent work of art using the superhero genre to explore the depths of human relationships and emotions, what makes Identity Crisis one of the most important books in the history of DC? This argument is a little difficult to make without giving spoilers. At its heart, this comic combines two genres — the superhero genre and the mystery genre. Remember, we have Batman and the Elongated Man, two of DC’s greatest detectives, working on a murder case. I can’t reveal in my review who did it, obviously, but what I love about this book is that who did it and why — though thematically relevant and not just plot points for a surprise reveal — are less significant than who some of the heroes think committed the murder and why they think this person is to blame.
Basically, though the murder mystery in this story is solved, other mysteries emerge. When these secondary mysteries are both revealed and solved — once again, I need to be vague to avoid spoilers — we realize the superhero community hasn’t been as unified as we thought. As a result, various superhero sub-groups react in a variety of ways that will have far-reaching effects that are still felt today in the DC universe. Having that much impact in either the DC or Marvel universe is an extremely rare accomplishment for an author to make in a single story arc (of only seven issues!).
I would go so far as to say that Identity Crisis not only treads some of the same thematic ground as Watchmen, but also surpasses it in one important way. Before I make that argument, however, I want to make clear that I’m not suggesting Identity Crisis surpasses Watchmen altogether. I love Watchmen, have read it multiple times, taught it in four different classes without managing to do more than scratch the surface of its goldmine, and think there is no other comic book that can beat it for the sheer number of ideas and themes connecting and resonating in far too many different ways to ever even catalogue. It is justifiably a contemporary classic — a sheer work of genius at the level of the greatest Shakespearean plays. However, Alan Moore was denied the use of existing characters, and as much as the world of Watchmen is similar to and obviously comments on the superheroes inhabiting the worlds of DC and Marvel, Moore’s characters do not exist in those worlds and are neither limited by what came before the comic was written nor will they directly impact continuity after publication (though the indirect impact of Watchmen on the world of comics is undeniable). And though this aspect of Watchmen is not a flaw in its artistic achievement or value, it does prevent it from being able to do what Identity Crisis ultimately does: In being concerned with one of the same questions Moore is — “Who watches the Watchmen?” — and in coming up with a similar conclusion related to the question — somebody needs to watch the Watchmen/Superheroes because they are flawed beings — Meltzer, because he, unlike Moore, is using major, well-known DC superheroes, ends up having a more direct, profound, and lasting effect on the DC comics that are written after Identity Crisis. (At the end of my review, I’ll suggest comic books to read that show this influence.
Identity Crisis is an excellent stand-alone comic. I read it before I knew much about comics, so I often recommend it to adult readers who are new to superhero comics. Also, as I keep repeating in my columns, comics are made to be picked up by people new to comics or at least new to that particular story-line. Comics always back up to give information necessary to get the new reader up to speed. Perhaps the only background I should give you to this story if you haven’t read many comics is that in the course of Batman’s long publication history (1939!), more than one boy has donned the costume of Robin. Most of us are familiar with Dick Grayson, who later became Nightwing. Dick grew up in the circus and his parents were murdered while performing a stunt. The Robin in Identity Crisis is Tim Drake (actually the third Robin), and Tim does have a father. Without this information, you might be surprised when you first see Robin spending time with his father in Identity Crisis. The fact that Robin has a father in DC continuity at the time of Identity Crisis is a perfect example of how Meltzer takes advantage of an existing situation to explore the father-son relationship not only in contrast to another father-son pairing, but also to pull in the context of Robin’s having a father-figure in Batman who, of course, lost his father—the crucial event that turned him into Batman. This is just one example of the countless ways in which Meltzer adapts continuity to his own thematic purposes.
In these initial comic book reviews I’m really trying to entice you to read high-quality comic books that act as easy entry-points to either DC, Marvel, or the world of comics in general. In my mind, they are the Kind of Blue of comics. When I meet someone who doesn’t know anything about jazz, or, heaven forbid, thinks they don’t like jazz, I recommend he purchase Kind of Blue by Miles Davis — immediately. If at all possible, an hour ago. Kind of Blue is a beautiful album that can be listened to while reading and relaxing. It makes great background music. But put on headphones and really listen to each and every song, and you’ll be blown away by its sheer genius. That’s how I feel about these books I am recommending in my columns. Identity Crisis is a fun, funny, fast, action-packed story with a mystery to be solved, memorable images, and great dialogue. So read it and have fun. But read it again. And again. And again. It’s a thematically rich book, as is the best literature, and therefore it surpasses the star system as does the greatest art.
Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis should be purchased in trade format to get the annotations by and discussions between the writer and artist. This bonus material helps make this book an even better entry point into comics because the writer and artist show you how intentional they are about conveying the themes that permeate a top-notch comic book like this. Below, with additional notes, are the trade collections I’d recommend that cover major events in the DCU (DC Universe):
- Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985) by Wolfman and Perez is the first major Crisis event. Excellent story, but someone new to DC comics might appreciate reading it later on.
- Identity Crisis (2004) by Meltzer and Morales. Perhaps the best place to start.
- JLA: Crisis of Conscience (2005) by Geoff Johns and Allan Heinberg.
After Identity Crisis, one can skip directly to Infinite Crisis because it gives a summary of what came between the two, but I actually like the books leading up to Infinite Crisis better than Infinite Crisis itself (Except Rann-Thanagar War, perhaps one of the worst comic books I’ve ever read. Believe it or not, it’s written by Dave Gibbons, the brilliant artist of Watchmen!). All the following trades should be purchased if you like Identity Crisis because they show the impact of Meltzer’s storyline on the DCU: Superman: Sacrifice, Day of Vengeance, The OMAC Project, Villains United, and Infinite Crisis. They collect a mix of comics that were coming out during a short period of time, so some of the collections have to be read in a certain order. I’ll explain below:
- “Countdown to Infinite Crisis” is included at the beginning of The OMAC Project. Read the summary of events at the beginning of the trade. It explains very clearly how OMAC ties to Identity Crisis. Then read the first, lengthy comic only. Return to OMAC later.
- Day of Vengeance, mainly written by Bill Willingham, should be read in its entirety. It deals with the magical realms and people of the DCU. The second comic in here reveals the fate of the murderer of Sue Dibny. One of my favorite trades.
- Villains United by Gail Simone explains how the criminals are reacting to what’s happening to the superheroes in their time of crisis. Not my favorite and not essential, but fun.
- The OMAC Project by Rucka and Saiz. Read issues 1-3 only. Essential.
- Superman: Sacrifice is by a variety of writers and should be read next in its entirety. Essential reading.
- The OMAC Project, issues 4-6. Essential.
- Infinite Crisis (2005-2006)by Geoff Johns. Essential.
The ultimate result of all these events from Identity Crisis to Infinite Crisis is that the DCU trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman all take a year off, and DC Comics ends up publishing, in my mind, the best major, long-term, team comic book project of all time: 52 (2006-2007). The team consisted of writers Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid (the last three are in my list of top eight writers. Including also Brubaker, Bendis, Moore, Gaiman, and Ellis). They worked with B-level characters in the DCU and told their stories over the course of a year by turning out a comic a week for 52 weeks to record what happened while the three main superheroes were gone. It’s collected in four trades with excellent notes by most of the writers on the team. Basically, if you want to read just the core comics that tell recent DCU history (and the best of that core), I’d purchase in trade the following: Identity Crisis, The OMAC Project, Superman: Sacrifice, Infinite Crisis, and the four brilliant trades of 52. But if you want to read just one book, I still maintain that Identity Crisis is the one you want to get.
I want to thank my wife, Adriane, for assistance with revisions and my long-time friend Andy for his continuing role as my personal comic book consultant.